Five years ago, the NFL had arguably the greatest draft in NFL history. No seriously. The greatest draft is easily 1964 looking back where there were 10 Hall of Fame players selected including names like Roger Staubach, Bob Hayes, Paul Krause, Charley Taylor, Carl Eller etc. There was even a player who ended up becoming a Hall of Fame coach named Bill Parcells.
The 2011 NFL Draft is far from completing its journey but the prospects are looking great. Cam Newton, Von Miller, Marcell Dareus, A.J. Green, Patrick Peterson, Julio Jones, Tyron Smith, J.J. Watt, Muhammed Wilkerson, Andy Dalton, Justin Houston, Richard Sherman, and more players are having great careers.
However, there’s always irony if you’re looking for it. For all those great potential Hall of Famers, there are the players who fail to reach expectations. The busts. Three of them to be precise. Their names are Blaine Gabbert, Jake Locker, and Christian Ponder. It was this draft five years ago that taught me several major lessons that made me understand the NFL in a deeper level.
The most important ones being these: Desperate teams will reach for quarterback and then they will end up regretting it.
That’s the cold truth. At least two of those three guys becoming busts was a foreseeable event. I was writing for Andy Benoit’s website NFL Touchdown.com at the time and I did a grading on the QBs. I spent way too much time watching the tape (college homework could wait back then), but I managed to have a thorough grading of the QBs based on what I knew.
I wasn’t perfect. I had Andy Dalton low and I thought Cam Newton’s attitude wasn’t great. But here’s where I learned the lesson. Christian Ponder coming out of Florida State didn’t have the greatest arm. He had had an injury before. He did run a pro-style under center offense in college, but he was a project. I had a second-round grade on him. I figured a team like Cincy should target him because A.J. Green was the projected pick at No. 4 but at No. 35 they could get a decent arm.
Andy Dalton was taken at No. 35 while Christian Ponder was taken at No. 12 by the Minnesota Vikings. I was astounded. It was the most ridiculous reach I’d ever seen. That was the third QB surprise of the day. The other two were Jake Locker at No. 8 going to the Tennessee Titans and Blaine Gabbert being taken at No. 10 by the Jacksonville Jaguars (who traded up to get him)!
Locker was a low first rounder in my grading. He had taken a step back in his final year at the University of Washington. His arm was inconsistent, accuracy was a bit off, and he used his body a bit too much. Blaine Gabbert was a guy who I didn’t want to touch with a 10-foot pole. He reminded me of Sunshine from the Tennessee Titans only not serious about football. He looked like he belonged on a beach, not a football field and his tape showed a QB who acted like a cat on a hot tin roof. The pocket would be stable and he’d still run. He was a fraidy-cat on the football field and I had a 5th round grade on him.
Looking back, I was a bit harsh. He deserved a 4th round grade. These NFL teams knew it too. They did more research and actually met with these guys (something I wasn’t able to). They still took them. It was when I sat on my couch, watching the draft, and staring at the screen thinking, ‘Why???’ that I came to the revelation that answered my own question.
Teams need quarterbacks. No. I mean they NEED quarterbacks. They NEED them. Because the quarterback has evolved almost to this lead actor role. Movies get these A-list actors because their names bring people into the theaters. How many of us would go to a movie simply because Robert Downey Jr. or Leonardo DiCaprio is the lead actor?
Well it’s kind of the same with quarterbacks. Tennessee was getting over Vince Young, Jacksonville needed someone to replace David Garrard. Minnesota had lost Brett Favre of all people. These teams needed quarterbacks. Franchise quarterbacks that they could use to market the teams and convince the average fan that believes, “HEY! We got a new quarterback! He’ll fix everything! Let’s go to the game!” and then they come and spend their money.
But teams can’t just draft a 6th round QB and say let’s go. The fans are not that dumb and the sportscasters and anchors aren’t going to hype Jonathan Sucksville from Loser University.
But Blaine Gabbert of Missouri! Christian Ponder of Florida State! Jake Locker of Washington! Great schools and we saw these guys play on TV! That’s marketable!
Understand this reader. The NFL franchises are more about making money, not about winning. Winning as a by-product makes them more money, so it is in their best interest to take the right player who helps them win, right? Of course, but the problem goes back to the popularity of the quarterback position. Why is it popular? Because it has the most IMPACT.
Tennessee should’ve drafted J.J. Watt by all means but let’s be honest.
J.J. Watt, as great a player as he is, is limited by his defensive end position. An average quarterback will be able to score points, throw touchdowns, look pretty on the video board, and make the team a lot of money. Also, considering no knew how Watt would turn out, it’s understandable from a marketing perspective why he wasn’t picked Top 10.
So while maybe this lineman or corner or receiver is a better pick roster-wise for the team, the owners and GMs know that a QB brings in the cash. They convince themselves that yeah Gabbert is as jumpy as a kangaroo. Eh, it’s workable. They’ll train him, coach him, and he’ll be great and they smile all the way to the bank. Same with Locker and Ponder.
Their deficiencies will change with great coaching and a personnel around them right?
Wrong! All three are busts and two of them should definitely have not been that high on draft boards. Gabbert is the only one still in the league with the 49ers (who didn’t draft him where he strangely was ok with last year). Locker retired and left money on the table and Ponder is more famous for marrying the lovely ESPN personality Samantha Steele (HELLO NURSE!!! *Wolf Whistle*).
That sums up what happens when teams REACH for quarterbacks. This is not the only example in the last five years. The Browns did it in back to back years with Brandon Weeden and Johnny Manziel. Weeden was going to fall to the second round due to age and Manziel had more off field issues than some alcoholics. But the Browns wanted to tell Cleveland to keep spending money, so they wasted valuable picks on players that were not a fit (Weeden) or just bad news (Manziel).
I can cite E.J. Manuel and Robert Griffin III (who was very talented but a divided organization took him) as well. The rest of the QBs in the first round have been smarter picks.
The point to all this? It’s going to happen again in 2016.
I can see three reaches happening. Five to be honest. Jared Goff and Carson Wentz will be No. 1 & 2, but Goff’s got small hands and Wentz is definitely a project. I wrote about why Goff will be picked top overall from a marketing standpoint, and the Eagles wanted a long-term solution that Sam Bradford certainly couldn’t provide. They are the best available, but they were hyped to No. 1 & 2.
Now, the three super reaches are going to come in the forms of Paxton Lynch from Memphis, Connor Cook from Michigan State, and Christian Hackenberg (that name is just foreboding by itself) from Penn State. None of these guys are Top 10-15 talents. Lynch maybe top 20. But the thing is the hype machine has made each one rise especially with Goff and Wentz off the board basically now.
It’s like this. You need a car. The only options left are in a junkyard. Teams in this scenario are trying to find the car that won’t need sawdust to run on and because they HAVE to take a quarterback (at least in order to keep revenues up), they will reach and grab someone.
Even if Hackenberg has an AWFUL arm (He throws incomplete screen passes that hit the ground…I ask you, who does that?!), even if Connor Cook is reported to be hated by scouts who feel there’s something wrong with his attitude as well as his small hands (I’ve never read so much pre-draft hate except on Vontaze Burfict), and even if Paxton Lynch was a distance third in the QB rankings from the get-go, teams are willing to get them.
Do all three become first-rounders? I’m not sure. I know Lynch definitely will and he deserves to be (he’s just going to be about 10-15 spots too high).
As to the other two. Cook has the better mechanics and record than Hackenberg, so he should go first. Now the question is which teams will target them. The Browns are definitely suckers yet again for a QB since Manziel was an utter failure (in more ways than one) in Cleveland.
A second team is the San Francisco 49ers whose GM Trent Baalke is one step away from being fired because it’s been four years since he’s had a great draft. Baalke I can see grabbing a QB in a Hail Mary attempt just to stay employed.
It gets a little trickier there. From picks 9-18, you got teams that were bad, but have good quarterbacks like Atlanta, New Orleans, Miami, Detroit and Indianapolis. At 19 and 20, there are the two AFC perennial losers known as the Buffalo Bills and New York Jets. The Jets had a great quarterback in Ryan Fitzpatrick last year and almost made the playoffs.
Now, for some reason, the Jets are letting Fitzpatrick sit on the market…It’s possible they take a QB (for future or present) at this spot. The Bills…I can’t even remember who their QB was…Oh Tyrod Taylor. He’s likeable, but he’s hardly a Pro Bowl passer. Oh that’s right, he was Joe Flacco’s backup for forever.
Yeah, it’s POSSIBLE that he becomes the guy they need, but it’s NOT PLAUSIBLE. The Bills are definitely a candidate for a QB here. Ok, going down the list, all that’s left is the Cardinals (who would be drafting for the future here) and the Broncos (who lost one QB to free agency and the other to retirement).
I don’t see the Broncos being a picker here personally. John Elway is not a man to make a desperate move, that’s why they are champions and partly why they are in this scenario because they weren’t desperate enough to shell out the dough needed to keep Brock Osweiler around. The better option would be to take Ryan Fitzpatrick off the market anyway (just give him the money, John!).
The rest of the QB prospects just aren’t good enough to justify a worthwhile investment.
Hype only goes so far. But it is hype that’s going to make the 2011 draft repeat itself because we got enough teams desperate for cars and a junkyard with some for sale signs up.